Aileen McCulloch, Middle School Drama Teacher
I am a producer, actor, painter, poet and educational theater director who, for the last two decades has worked primarily with students (aged 5 to adult) to teach theater skills as not just an artistic form, but as a way of living life. As we strive to give college bound children more of the contemporary skills that they need to meet the demands of continued study followed by “real life,” I am frequently confronted with questions that force me to argue the value of my field, and all of the other arts as well. Why should students be asked to focus on the arts in school, over expanding their STEM skills? I spend much of my time researching so that I can give the best answers to explain the value of the performing arts for students in K-12 study.
To me, it seems obvious. The arts are invaluable! Painting, drawing, acting, singing, dancing – they teach us technique, yes, but more importantly, they teach us that creativity involves thinking beyond technique. Where the other skills tend to be seated activities, the arts get us up and moving. They teach us to look inward, to explore our own character, and then to expand our views to explore the character of those around us. They show us that 24 eyes can look at one pot of flowers, and 12 different creative expressions can come out of the viewing – with every expression being inspirational and RIGHT. In short, the arts teach us to physically seek the strongest choice for this moment, rather than that there is only one “correct” choice to be made.
I was lucky. I never had one year of schooling pass where I wasn’t heavily exposed to the fine and performing arts. My high school produced a show for every grade and a musical that combined the grades. We had a choir, a show choir, and a battle of the bands. We had not just an art room but we also had an art wing. Since I left school, I rarely have had a day pass where I am not involved in creating something new and exciting with creative collaborators. So I can understand why many people who have not been so exposed might not understand the power of pushing children out of the box, and into the wild creative frontier of the open mind through long time and consistent exposure to the arts.
I was inspired recently by several articles on the importance of the arts in education. Need a Job? Invent it! by Thomas L. Friedman and Probing Question: Is art an essential school subject? by Melissa Beattie-Moss. These are not the first articles about the importance of sharing the arts with students, but they were two that brought not just test scores to the argument, or personal experiences, but observations from the work force. I think the fact that bosses are seeing the difference in their employees based on the worker’s past experience in the arts is really eye opening for all educators! We need more arts, not less! Every child needs to learn how to color outside the lines and dance based on the music in their hearts.
The articles give a real world face to the fact that the humanities are not just fluff that students take to break up their day of required academics. Ironically, it is just the opposite. Fine and performing arts expand the brain’s ability to absorb and creatively work with given “facts” in a way that most academic subjects do not. They teach that there are many ways to see the same object, the same situation. The arts add power to technological STEM, so that our children can STEAM into uncharted waters. In essence, the arts teach us how to think, while many of our other studies teach us what to think. Guess what? That “what” changes through the decades, and the “how” allows us to embrace that change!
I am a strong proponent of playing in the classroom. For several years I ran Young Audiences of Eastern PA, an organization that brought artists into classes to teach everything from creative thinking to required topics through new and innovative ways, while offering performances as well. These articles points out that as we consider training our children for college, we need to keep our eye on what really matters – we need to train creators. The first article, Need a Job? Invent it!, is the most succinct argument for that approach that I’ve ever seen.
This last year I have asked every girl who enters my classroom to create an original work with the promise that there is “no wrong and right, only creating the strongest work you can.” My goal has been to teach them how to create through their own original thought, both individually and in teams. I have given them tools, but then pointed out that there are numerous different ways to use those tools. I have reminded them that their voice is essential to the creation of our projects!
I then have them journal to tell me what each of their original experiences taught them. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at some of the lessons learned that I had no idea were also in the plan. They literally played themselves to a higher level of critical thought. I’m really thrilled by that and wanted to share my inspiration.
The goal of every theater artist I know is to do the best work possible and to explore many different approaches. There isn’t just ONE way to do anything. Actors know this. Inventors know this. Lawyers know this. Much of the time we are teaching just the opposite! Here’s to moving past STEM, and giving our children the STEAM they need to make a better world in the future.
And for a never-ending stream of STEAM, join this Facebook members only group PlayMore: Education Inspiration that focuses on education and the arts, founded by my long-time friend Elizabeth Rubenstein. It brings daily inspiration to my feed.